Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Music from Santoro's Sixties

Claudio Santoro: Symphony no. 8, Cello Concerto

As one of the top Brazilian composers of the middle and late 20th century, Claudio Santoro stayed on top of the latest musical trends, but always kept an eye on the tradition created in part by Heitor Villa-Lobos, his Bachian, Brazilian forebear. More than 30 years younger than Villa-Lobos, Santoro spent time in Paris, studying with Nadia Boulanger, so Villa's modernism was absorbed at the source. Though Santoro ventured into atonality, under the influence of another teacher, Hans Joachim Koellreutter (who also taught Antônio Carlos Jobim), there are as many similarities between the two composers as there are differences. The split between the "Nationalists" and the "Serialists" that came about when Koellreutter started Musica Viva is in this case rather permeable.

This is especially apparent in the Cello Concerto, which Santoro wrote in 1961 (two years after Villa's death). The cello was Villa-Lobos's instrument, along with the guitar and piano, and he wrote a number of great cello concertos and other works featuring the instrument, which I'm sure Claudio Santoro knew well. Cellist Marina Martins gives a spirited performance of the work in this new recording from Naxos's estimable Music of Brazil series, with able support from the Goiás Philharmonic Orchestra. Though it was written in Berlin during a historic geopolitical crisis and amidst revolutionary musical changes, the Cello Concerto shows at least some remaining touches of Brasilidade, if not the full-scale national (and at that point conservative) sound of late Villa-Lobos.

Santoro's Symphony no. 8 comes from the following year, 1962, when Santoro was back in Brazil, teaching at the University of Brasilia. Symphonies loom larger in his oeuvre than in Villa's, and this work makes its mark through its intensity and depth of feeling. A vocalise in the second movement Andante - beautifully sung here by mezzo-soprano Denise de Freitas - hearkens back to Villa-Lobos's most famous work. It's supported by dark murmurings and ejaculations from the orchestra, and bookended by the similarly expressionistic first movement and a dramatic, rhythmically propulsive finale.

By 1966 Santoro was back in Berlin, where he wrote the Três Abstrações (Three Abstractions) for string orchestra. These are wonderful short character pieces - two or three minutes each - that make use of a serial technique to create alternating moods of mystery, dread, and, in the final piece, perhaps some hope for transcendance. By 1969 Santoro, who was not in the good books of the military dictatorship in Brazil, was at work in Paris, where he wrote his Interações Assintóticas (Asymptotic Interactions - a term taken from the current mathematical research of a physicist colleague of Santoro's). This is a very cool ten-minute work that makes use of quarter tones, beautifully coloured by Santoro's clever use of every instrument in a large orchestra. Olivier Messiaen once said that Heitor Villa-Lobos was the greatest orchestrator of the 20th century, and Claudio Santoro is carrying on this tradition. This is such an entertaining piece, and one that showcases a virtuoso orchestra in the Goias Philharmonic, under Neil Thomson.

By way of an encore, the disc ends with One Minute Play, a work from 1966. It's a tiny, clever, perpetual motion machine for strings, and it must be a great deal of fun to play. What a wonderful ending for a challenging but always interesting disc.

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